Friday, July 26, 2013

Freethinking Religion

Parshat Ekev
19 Menahem Av, 5773
July 26th, 2014

If you've read my column lately you know that I'm a little obsessed with Vonnegut in the past month or so. I do wish my writing was not so derivative, but if one has to steal, I suppose one should steal from the best.

He was a freethinker, but what he has to say about religion strikes at my core. In particular, I cannot shake his belief that we now know too much for the convictions of old time religion to become the core of our beliefs. Homosexuality isn't a crime against nature; demons do not exist – schizophrenia does; genocide against unbelievers seems rather ill-considered. Vonnegut says, "I think we all know that religion of that sort is about as nourishing to the human spirit as potassium cyanide."

Our Torah tells us that we were once in a Garden, and that in Eden we were ignorant of just about everything we now consider to be fundamental information. It's a shame that, while ignorant, we were a damn sight happier than we are now. Our forbears chose knowledge over happiness, and chose irrevocably. "We are," he says, "stuck with our knowledge, which has seeped into all of our tissues."

As a result, I have become gently suspicious of those spiritual sentiments that sound just lovely. I have heard atheists and agnostics who believe firmly in reincarnation (what, pray tell, is doing the reincarnating?). I have heard believers tell me that, as long as I check my mezuzahs regularly, no harm can befall me.

And I realize that the people who say such things are sophisticated, intelligent, spiritually centered individuals. It just that they cannot escape our common fate: we are spiritually stuck. Our new knowledge prevents us from finding that in which we should believe. We just haven't had enough time with it.

So when we assert religious belief these days, most of us speak metaphorically and not literally. The things we say speak to the soul, not to the mind. And sometimes things we say, so welcome to the soul, look a little flimsy under the microscope.

The Talmud teaches that before moshiach comes, Elijah the prophet will show up and yetaretz kushiyot u’ba’ayot – resolve all our disagreements and problems, which, in matters of belief, would be absolutely wonderful. But until then, we need to hear two messages. The first is for the believers: when we assert belief, let us assert lightly; let us hold faith lightly, and not be greedy or paranoid about our most precious possession. If it is true Torah, it will show itself to be so. We are not yet in a place in which our knowledge and our faith know each other to be true.

The second message is for those who do not believe: it is worth listening to many of the believers; for though they may not grasp the truth firmly, they often point in its direction, and that is more valuable still.

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